Movie Review: Black Swan, posted July 10, 2018
Rating: As a movie, 4 stars of 5; regarding mental illness, only 1 star.
This review of the Oscar winner from a couple of years back may come across as unduly harsh, but I don’t mean to deride here the quality of the storytelling, the cinematography, the directing, the fabulous acting of the entire cast—especially its star, Natalie Portman—or Portman’s dancing. (Exactly what dancing did she actually do? The answer is at the end.)
What disappoints this reviewer is the unrealistic depictions of mental illness in this film. Throughout the making and release of Black Swan, the filmmakers repeatedly said that the main character, Portman’s Nina Sayers, was supposed to be suffering from borderline personality disorder. We in the Welcome to Oz support group for family members of people with BPD had been looking forward to the film.
They did get a few things right. But then, they get so much more so horribly wrong that if I had BPD myself, I’d be insulted. I feel insulted for my family member who has BPD over this film.
What they get right: Nina’s deep sense of panic and despair when anyone disapproves of her, her low opinion of herself, and her poor sense of personal limits. Although she is clearly one of her company’s top dancers, Nina is unable to be happy with her own progress unless the two main authority figures in her life, her mother and the head of her ballet company, are completely satisfied themselves. She measures her self-worth according to their reactions—every little twitch—and if it isn’t good, she has no capacity to find any sense of self-worth on her own. Her anxiety over this has given her an eating disorder and a self-mutilation problem. She also steals from the principal’s dressing room, a thrill-seeking behavior a BP might do. And she doesn’t have the ability to see, as a more independent and enlightened young woman would, that her ballet master’s treatment of her is blatant sexual harassment and should earn him a lawsuit.
Nina also does something that many borderlines do: when someone feels the slightest sense of disapproval toward her, she’s looking for it and she notices it. But in at least one case—that of her ballet master—she misinterprets the reason. Thomás actually is trying to help her out and give her a chance. He’s really in her corner and never wanted to give the starring part to anyone else but her. But he’s an egotistical and harsh person. He cruelly manipulates his dancers, and Nina isn’t able to consider him more objectively and see that he isn’t able to fire her from the part. She can perhaps be forgiven for this, however, as sexual harassment does tend to mask any redeeming qualities a person might have.
Sad to say, this is the extent of what Black Swan gets right about BPD, at least in the character of Nina. The many hallucinations that Nina has present a huge problem; two, in fact. BP’s are said to experience “transient stress-related paranoia”. What this means is that a BP, when anxious about problems in her life, for example, might notice two people talking and assume they’re speaking negatively between themselves about her. Or she might misconstrue an innocent question or comment as a deliberate insult. One example of realistic BP paranoia occurs when Nina begs Thomás not to cast Lily as her understudy because Lily wants her role. (Of course, in this case Lily really may be scheming to get the role herself; in this case, as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. The movie makes this issue murky. Is Lily really out to do Nina in or not?)
But a BP, unless suffering from some other comorbidity, would not: Glance at someone’s face and mistake it for her own; look at paintings of faces and see and hear them speaking to her; believe that she was growing feathers; believe her own legs were morphing into swan legs (no matter how hard the special effects department was trying for an Oscar); see and feel the actual sensations of fighting someone who wasn’t there; see a person stabbing herself in the face who actually was not; or stab herself with a piece of glass believing she was actually striking away from herself at an imaginary person. Although some of these hallucinations remind me of what Gene Tierney described in her autobiography, even a bipolar or a paranoid schizophrenic generally knows in what direction her hands are moving.
Half these story points seem to be there mainly to confuse the audience, a dirty trick that isn’t even necessary. The story is gripping enough without that. It’s dirtier still when the result is widespread, Oscar-winning confusion about BPD.
Other well-known information about BPD shows up, but the reason for it is misinterpreted. BPD sufferers sometimes do commit suicide, for example, but not because they’re attacking themselves in some fragmented sense of reality that probably doesn’t even happen in real schizophrenia. Rather, they do it by accident, because an act of self-mutilation has gotten out of hand, or they do it deliberately, because the pain of their lives has become too much to bear.
The character whose behavior actually looks a lot more like real BPD is that of Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey. As the child of a BP myself, I know that horrible feeling of having to capitulate quickly to a parent’s will, such as when Nina eats the cake, in order to avoid a frightening explosion of anger. Nina’s mother has completely ruled her child’s life. Nina is her stand-in, the proxy ballerina who achieved what her mother never could in the world of dance, and she allows the girl no privacy. Nina agrees unquestioningly with everything her mother thinks, values, and believes. One can see how Hershey’s character has accomplished this: through threats of withdrawal of the love and approval every child needs, and through threats of the kind of loss of control that strikes terror into the heart of every child. As the thirty-eight year recipient of exactly this kind of behavior, I cheered when Nina finally left the house to go clubbing with Lily, and plucked a pole out of the garbage to bar her mother from her room.
It should be noted that a lot of what I’ve said here that looks like accurate BPD behavior from Nina can also show up in a child who does not have BPD, but was raised by a BPD parent. I had the same low self-esteem, lack of boundaries, and need for approval when I was Nina’s age, before I learned that how your parents see the world is not how you have to see it. Nina Sayers isn't BPD, she's hideously codependent with horrorifically low self-esteem. And while a lot of her behavior in the film conforms to that, the bizarre hallucinations do not.
So there is lots of accuracy here. The sad thing is that BPD is dramatic enough. It doesn’t need all the Hollywoodisms and wild fabrications to dress it up and manipulate and confuse the audience.
Those of us who have BPD, or love someone who does, know: This disease is no joke. It cries out for real understanding among the public, not horrible distortions for the sake of box office. I find myself disappointed that Portman, a Harvard psych major, didn’t use her training to research BPD a little more thoroughly and insist on more accuracy, as much as I admired everything else she did in the film and believe she earned her Oscar.
Oh, and Portman’s dancing? She does all her dances, but she does them on the balls of her feet. The only move she can do en pointe is seen at the very beginning and very end of the film, where she stands in one place, fluttering en pointe and flapping her wings. The rest of the shots where you see a dancer on the tips of her toes are of Sarah Lane or Kimberly Prosa.